He couldn't stand the static, and complained to his engineers about it. They weren‘t very hopeful. “Static, like the poor, will always be with us,” one said. Well, my guess is that you aren’t hearing a lot of static in this broadcast, thanks to the invention of FM.
But millions of poor still seem to be with us, despite our immense national wealth and technological know-how.
That is a national embarrassment for a number of reasons, and maybe the biggest of which is this: We simply don’t know how to cure poverty in America. We can feed people, clothe people, give them money or lock them up. But we can’t make them stop being poor.
There are two great sets of myths about poverty in America, one held by liberals and one by conservatives. Both are equally untrue. The conservative myth is that none of the great anti-poverty programs of the New Deal or the Great Society did any good at all.
That’s not true. The New Deal programs of the 1930s did not sharply reduce unemployment. But they did give people food and dignity and hope. Then in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he was declaring War on Poverty.
Backed by a supportive Congress, he launched a vast array of anti-poverty programs. Though some still exist, such as Head Start, most are long extinct. Some of them were, indeed, money-wasting bureaucratic boondoggles.
But others were successful, and over the next decade, the number of deeply poor in America was cut almost in half. The official poverty rate declined from 19 percent to 11 percent.
The War on Poverty’s intensive phase didn’t last very long, thanks in part to the cost of the War in Vietnam.
Nobody will ever know how much more could have been accomplished in terms of eliminating poverty. But what we can be sure of now is that we would not have eliminated it entirely.
The liberal myth is that all it would take to finally eliminate poverty are jobs and money and a few more social programs. And that is also wrong. Poverty is just not money, it is a culture and a state of mind. We are now seeing an alarming rise in poverty and crime in middle-sized American cities.
The July/August Atlantic Magazine takes a devastating look at that phenomenon in Memphis, Tennessee. There, poor people have left the projects and moved into nicer neighborhoods.
But for many, that means they have lost their sense of community, not their problems. Author Hanna Rosin concludes:
“The problems of poverty are so deep that we‘re unlikely to know the answer for a generation. Truly escaping poverty seems to require a will as strong as a spy. You have to disappear to a strange land, forget where you came from, and ignore the suspicions of everyone around you.” For too many, that’s too hard.
And for society, finding an answer may be even harder.